26 June 1998

Signs of Breast Cancer

Researchers exploring the relationship between androgens and breast cancer suggest physical characteristics may be useful for screening.

Excess body hair, oily skin and an "apple-shaped" physique. Those are the physical characteristics in women that scientists from the University of Buffalo claim may indicate a greater risk of developing breast cancer.

Presenting the research at today's annual meeting of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, assistant professor of social and preventative medicine Paula Muti said blood levels of male sexual hormones known as androgens - produced in small amounts by the ovaries and adrenal glands - have been positively associated with the risk of developing breast cancer in several studies. The most active androgen is testosterone.

In a comparative analysis of androgenic traits in women with and without breast cancer, the researchers discovered that post-menopausal women with excess body hair were 33 percent more likely to develop the cancer. That finding, they say, does not apply to pre-menopausal women.

However, pre-menopausal women with the stereotypical "apple" shape (meaning that the waist is bigger than the hips) were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop breast cancer than their "pear-shaped" counterparts. No significant relationship was found between waist-to-hip ratio and breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women.

"If these characteristics are linked to an increased risk, women with these traits could be referred for closer screening, or could receive treatment to lower the androgen level," comments Muti. "There are hormone-lowering drugs available, and there are also indications that a diet high in vegetables, fruits and fibre can lower testosterone levels."